Behavior - Oh Baby!

by Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA

At age 50-plus and spayed, I'm never going to have children. Since I have no children of my own, I'm also not likely to have grandbabies visiting. So why should I care whether my dogs are good with children? Because children exist.

Wherever you go in today's world, there are likely to be young humans. Unless you plan to keep your dog cloistered in your own home, shut away when friends with children visit, you need to help her be comfortable with children. Your dog's very life could depend on it.

At one time, our culture was far more tolerant of dog bites than it is today. When I was a kid, if a dog bit a child, Mom's response was, "So, what did you do to Nipper to make him bite you?" Children were expected to learn how to respect a dog's space, and if Johnnie acquired a few nicks from a dog's teeth in the process, so be it. Today, one bite, even a minor nip, can be a death sentence for a dog.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children are the #1 victim of dog bites in this country. That's no accident. From a dog's perspective, babies and children are weird, unpredictable, and noisy; they move erratically, make long, hard, direct eye contact (a threat in the canine world); often cause pain; compete for food and toys; and don't respond appropriately to a dog's appeasement, deference, or self-defense signals. Since most children aren't allowed to learn by experience that when Nipper stiffens, growls, and curls his lip, the next thing that happens is a snap or bite, kids tend to be oblivious to a dog's warning signals. No wonder dogs perceive children as threatening!

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar tells audiences at every opportunity that the best insurance against future dog bites to humans, young and old, is puppy socialization. If it's too late for puppy socialization, it's not too late to start playing catch-up with remedial socialization. If you already have a baby, are planning to have one soon, have distant plans for children or, like me, don't ever intend to have human puppies, now's the time to start your personal kid-bite insurance program.

Puppy Socialization Time

Puppies go through a critical learning period in the first few months of their lives. During this time, usually between the ages of 4 weeks and 13 weeks, they learn which things in the world are safe and rewarding, which ones are painful and dangerous and should be avoided, and which have no consequence. Anything not experienced during this critical period tends to automatically fall into the "dangerous" category. If a puppy doesn't learn that children are "safe and rewarding" during those critical months, he's likely to assume that they're a threat.

In a perfect world, every new puppy would be thoroughly socialized to babies, toddlers, and children while she was in her critical learning period. Despite many veterinarians' recommendations that their clients wrap their puppies in cotton wool and keep them strictly at home until they have been fully vaccinated, it's vitally important that your puppy have positive experiences with the big wide world during her first four months, long before she's fully vaccinated. You can do this without exposing Buffy to life-threatening diseases. For example, you could invite lots of people, including babies and children, vaccinated healthy puppies, and friendly dogs, over to your house for puppy parties. Give everyone handfuls of really yummy treats to feed to Buffy. Monitor your pup's interactions with children to be sure they're all positive. Have children of all ages feed Buffy lots of treats and she'll quickly decide that kids are a good thing, not dangerous. The goal is to teach her that the small humans of the world are a source of pleasure and reward.

Adult Dog Kid-Conditioning

Maybe it's too late to socialize Buffy to babies and children during her critical learning period. That stage of her life has long passed. Is it too late to teach her to live with children? Not necessarily. It's more difficult, but probably not impossible.

If your dog's experiences with children up until now have been neutral and she's otherwise well-socialized, seek out gentle children and have them feed her treats. Watch her closely. If she seems cheerful and happy, continue to find opportunities for her to have positive experiences with kids.

If your dog is tense or nervous with children, take it more slowly. Let her see babies and kids at a distance, and you feed her treats. Select a very special treat, like steak or chicken, and feed it to her only in the presence of children and babies. When she notices a child in the distance, steak starts raining from the heavens - tiny tidbits, non-stop. When the child leaves, the flood of steak stops. Every time a child appears, the steak starts. When the child leaves, the steak stops. You want Buffy to think that children and babies, and only children and babies, make steak happen.

When Buffy looks at you happily for her steak when she sees a child in the distance, you know she's starting to perceive children as reliable predictors of steak. Your goal is to convince her to like them close up as well, through the continued association with really wonderful food. Gradually move closer to the children, repeating the exercise, always watching her body language to be sure she's comfortable.

Never punish her for showing signs of discomfort or aggression, such as growling, when children are around. The growl is a critically important warning sign. It's Buffy's way of telling us she's not comfortable around kids. If you punish her and suppress her warning signs, she's far more likely to bite a child one day, severely and without warning. You can't punish her into loving children - you have to use positive conditioning and reinforcement to convince her that kids are good to have around.

The older Buffy is, the longer she's been uncomfortable around children, and the stronger her response to them is, the longer this process, known as counter conditioning and desensitization, will take. Of course, you'll always supervise her around children, even if she loves them. If Buffy's merely tolerant of children, you'll have to supervise much more closely. If she's truly uncomfortable with them, you'll need to confine her in a safe place, such as her crate in your bedroom, where children aren't permitted.

When Baby Makes Four

When a baby is coming to live at your house, your task is more daunting, and more vitally important. As soon as you know Baby's on the way, start helping Buffy adjust. Whatever changes are going to occur in her routine should happen long before Baby arrives, so she won't associate them with the arrival of the new family member. Ideally, you'll keep her as much of a full-fledged member of the family as she is now, finding ways to incorporate her presence into your daily baby routine rather than excluding her. For suggestions in helping to ensure that the baby transition is a positive one for Buffy, read the full-length version of this article here.

When Baby arrives, Buffy will be excited to see Mom after she's been away. The day before Mom and Baby come home, have Dad bring home a blanket that's been wrapped around Baby, so it picks up his scent. Show the blanket to Buffy. Let her sniff it, and feed her yummy treats. Then put the blanket in Buffy's bed. When Baby comes home the next day, his scent will already be familiar to her.

When you all get home, have Dad hold Baby outside while Mom goes in to greet Buffy. If Buffy forgets her polite greeting manners in her excitement, she won't hurt Baby, and she won't get yelled at. You don't want her first introduction to Baby to be negative!

Then have Dad come in with Baby, while Mom has treats ready to reward Buffy for greeting Dad and the human puppy nicely. Rather than banishing Buffy to the back yard while everyone settles in, encourage her to lie calmly on her rug, or if necessary, use a tether to keep her out of the midst of chaos until things calm down.

If you've done your homework well, Buffy will soon love Baby as much as you do, and you'll have successfully set the stage for a long and happy relationship between your dog and your child.

Pat Miller is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and Certified Professional Dog Trainer. This article has been excerpted with the author's permission. The full-length article is available at